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Previous Ministers' releases and speeches - Senator The Hon. Michael Ronaldson

Senator the Hon. Michael Ronaldson
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC
Special Minister of State

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Wednesday, 29 January 2014
MINVA003

TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD STUBBS
AFTERNOONS - 774 ABC MELBOURNE

Topics: Centenary of ANZAC ballot closure

RICHARD STUBBS: Sitting on the line I imagine behind a big desk with leather bound books behind him is the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Michael Ronaldson. Michael, welcome.

MINISTER MICHAEL RONALDSON: Hello Richard, how are you?

RICHARD STUBBS: Have you in fact got leather bound books behind you?

MINISTER: No. There's a blank wall behind me at the moment...

RICHARD STUBBS: I think there's somebody who needs extra shelving in the
Government so you might offer that up in the spirit of comradeship.

MINISTER: Yes it's very generous of you Richard, thank you, I've got you.

RICHARD STUBBS: Just a thought. Onto more important things, you are the Minister for Veterans' Affairs which is an important portfolio at the best of times, but with the Centenary of ANZAC looming up you've also taken on that hat as well. I wanted to specifically talk to you about the ballot for going on to Gallipoli. Just explain exactly what it is?

MINISTER: This is for 2015, so ANZAC Day 2015 Richard and there will be a ballot conducted in conjunction with the New Zealanders. So the kiwis and ourselves have agreed - well the Turkish Government has directed there'll be 10,500 people can go onto the Peninsula in 2015 and there'll be 8000 Australians, 2000 Kiwis and there'll be about another 500 for official guests. There'll be a very small federal parliamentary representation of our Prime Minister and Mr Shorten and myself and the Shadow Veterans Affairs Minister, they'll be the only pollies who are going. The ballot closes on Friday 31st -11.59pm.

Look your listeners maybe interested in the way it's broken up the ballot numbers. There's 400 double passes, so that's 800 people for direct descendants, with preference for first generation sons and daughters, 400 double passes, 800 people for veterans with qualifying service who have been deployed in the operations outside Australia and there's 3000 double passes in the general ballot. A couple of hundred places for school children from around Australia plus chaperones. And a couple of weeks ago Richard I wrote to 169 widows of First World War servicemen. It's a remarkable number that are still alive and inviting them to attend Gallipoli as guests for the Australian Government and guest to the Australian people so....

RICHARD STUBBS: That seems an eminently reasonable breakdown. Was this breakdown in these selection groups, was that a long process to get it down? What you've just said, everything as you were saying and I was thinking that makes sense, that makes sense, that's great. How long did it take to get these groups and the numbers nutted out?

MINISTER: Look there was - clearly the Turkish Government are our hosts Richard and they're very generous hosts. The department in successive governments have been working with them for some time now to make sure they're happy with the numbers that are going and we ultimately made the decision about what the breakdown would be. The numbers going were stipulated by the Turkish Government which of course is their right. But no with 160 widows, who knows how many will be able to make the trip, but...

RICHARD STUBBS: Yeah absolutely...

MINISTER: ...the Prime Minister and I thought it was really important that we...

RICHARD STUBBS: It is, it's incredibly important to offer that.

MINISTER: ...to pay for them to go. So, look fingers crossed there'll be there. Look those of your listeners who have been to Gallipoli will know that it's not a walk along a nice flat footpath, it's - you've got to be reasonably fit and there's uneven ground. So I'd be interested to see how many of the widows attend, but the Prime Minister and I thought it really important to invite them and pay for those who can make the trip.

RICHARD STUBBS: Well it also says so much about Gallipoli which is an unusual battle in that it wasn't a successful campaign, it wasn't - for example the British aren't getting an allocation here as far as I can see from what you've told me and the British were of course a big part of the Gallipoli battle. But for Australia it looms much larger than just the battle itself. We spread it out to all World War I widows because it's come to symbolise, it's quite a deal for Australia.

MINISTER: Well look I think sometimes there is a tendency for people to focus on Gallipoli only and quite rightly I think we should also be focusing on the Western Front. But of course at the same time there's the 2015 ceremony happening at Gallipoli, there'll be a similar ceremony at Villers-Bretonneux and people will be able to - those who don't get into the ballot draw may well contemplate going to Villers-Bretonneux. I'm talking to the Turkish authorities about whether we can have some other commemorative events over that period and I hope that we can and that may well provide other opportunities as well.

RICHARD STUBBS: It's fascinating isn't it, as I think I've often said, but it's true, my grandfather served on the Western Front and so for me the battlefields of France have a much greater interest and attraction than the Gallipoli campaign. As Minister for Veterans' Affairs, what do you think it is that romances Gallipoli so much, why is it just - because it was very early, but why Gallipoli, why not the charge of Beersheba or why not something else in that campaign? What is it about that that is so - I don't know, it captures us so?

MINISTER: Look I think it's probably a state of mind that's evolved over many decades and I think that's the great challenge in as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Centenary of ANZAC. I see my role also about educating particularly young Australians about the Western Front and the enormous sacrifices that were made by Australians there, the quite remarkable victories that were quite frankly generated by the Australians and it was also part of the ANZAC legend on the Western Front. I mean extraordinary heroic deeds, very very fine soldiers, so there is quite a remarkable legacy. And I hope in 2018 I'm investigating whether we might have an interpretive centre at Villers-Bretonneux. That will depend on discussions with the French and cost et cetera.  So I'm very anxious with my dual cap on to ensure that by 2018 that the Australian community has a far better understanding of the Western Front and is not just all about Gallipoli as important as Gallipoli is.

RICHARD STUBBS: Yeah, and for my money too Minister, it's not so much about yeah, the soldiers were very brave and some of them were and some of them weren't and - but on the whole the Australians did very well, it's more about the incredible impact that World War I had on Australian society. The numbers involved if you extrapolate it out into modern numbers.  When you go through rural Victoria for example and you realise that there was no country town, no family untouched by World War I, and the ripple effect of that into Australia in the '20s and '30s, it was an incredibly traumatic experience for a young nation.

MINISTER: It was remarkably traumatic and out of interest I think the only other country that had this sort of higher per capita casualty rate were the Kiwis and they suffered horrific losses as well. But you're right, I mean we lost a generation of young men and there are remarkable stories of the women who literally took over our farms throughout the country and ran those farms and kept them going and there are some incredible stories.  There will be a travelling exhibition which will be funded through the Australian War Memorial which will tour all over Australia including many regional and rural areas, and those stories will be told about some of those sacrifices and the impact on country towns.  I'm a Ballarat boy myself so I've had a lot to do with regional Victoria and there is not a town large or small where you cannot see the impact upon families and…

RICHARD STUBBS: Absolutely.

MINISTER: … you know they're going to be brothers or uncles or cousins but they're the same family.

RICHARD STUBBS: You've got a great responsibility because it is this centenary year to remember and reflect but not turn it into Disney On Ice.  I'm sure that you're critically aware that the - you want to make these events memorial and memorable but not over-glamorise and not add glitz. That must be a difficult balancing act for you.

MINISTER: Look it is a balancing act but I think if you work on the basis that we - as Australians we must see this as our most important commemorative event and you see that we've got to teach a new generation, the young generation of Australian children when, where and why - when we went, where we went, why we went and I think they are as important as some of these other commemorations as well.

And I want young people to come out of 2018 not with any sense of glorification of war, because you've only got to speak to people who have served and they all tell you there's nothing to be glorified, but to have an understanding.  And look I pay tribute to a former Labor Veterans Affairs Minister, Con Sciacca who ran the Australia Remembers program which - commemorating the end of the 50 years of the end of the Second World War and that was a really strong grass-roots campaign and I think Con, not singlehandedly but certainly was a very pivotal part of these huge increase in numbers at ANZAC Day ceremonies and we've just seen then grow from strength to strength.

I remember when I was first elected as the Member for Ballarat in the early '90s and we would go to a dawn service and go back to have a cup of coffee with a bit of rum in it and we would all be genuinely concerned about how long we could keep the dawn services going. And the Australia Remembers program reinvigorated that and I think it gives everyone enormous sense of pride.

I know it certainly does me proud when I see thousands of people, even small town, many hundreds, areas like my home town of Ballarat, thousands of people and of course in the suburbs of Melbourne I mean it's quite remarkable.

RICHARD STUBBS: Well, it is and hopefully I know we're spreading our conversation out but you are the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, hopefully too it helps our current veterans because one of the awful things about our ANZAC Day and our remembrance days are that we reflect also on ADF members who are currently serving in hazardous areas and that continues. And so hopefully too it helps those who are recently returned or currently serving and to feel that the community supports them. And that's one of the positives I hope that come out of those national days of remembrance.

MINISTER: Well, the youngest client of DVA is about six months old, Richard, and my grandchildren are still going to have responsibility for those family members when they're 70 and we do need to ensure we don't repeat the mistakes of the past. I mean the way that Vietnam men were treated when they got back was absolutely appalling, and there were quite significant ramifications and still are of the way they were treated.

I mean they were only a group of men serving the country at the country's request and their treatment on return was I think a very dark day in this country's history, and…

RICHARD STUBBS: Yeah, it - you're right, Minister, and I think too it marks a change where we were able to have arguments as we should in a free democracy about the rights and wrongs of the Government's decision to go to war, but we can respect that the men and women who are asked to do the job and not confuse the two.

MINISTER: That was the issue I think, Richard, that the two were blended together by design or by accident and I think that's where the issue was. But if you look at the new generation of young men and women who are returning, particularly from Iraq, Afghanistan. I mean we have an enormous and long-term obligation to these young men and women.

Some have mental health issues. I'm working with the department to ensure that we can proactively address these issues – and not reactively so – because quite frankly the sooner you can intervene and address those issues I think the greater the success will be. So there are some enormous - people say oh well, it's a department where the numbers the dropping dramatically with the unfortunate demise of the Second World War vets, but it's actually a department where the challenges are as significant or even greater than they have been in the past.

And I'm acutely aware of that and I think the Centenary of ANZAC will not only provide us all again with a good history lesson but I think it will also hopefully refocus the community on what our obligations are to these young men and women…

RICHARD STUBBS: Absolutely.

MINISTER: … and especially their families and we should never forget that for every veteran there is a family as well who also suffer the consequences. So look, I'm really excited about it. It's going to be challenging, you're right about getting the balance right, but I'm really very excited about it, looking forward to it with great anticipation and expectation and I think if we do it well we can have multiple wins out of this.

RICHARD STUBBS: There are some places, some thousands of places available for you if you jump on the website. You go to the Gallipoli 2015 website, you can see it's very simple there to sign in and apply for the ballot if you wish and that ballot closes on 31 January at about midnight. So good luck if you're going into the ballot. The odds are pretty good and that'll be certainly an extraordinary to be a part of that.

Michael Ronaldson, the Minister for Veteran Affairs, thank you so much for your time.  I do appreciate it.  I hope we get to talk again over the upcoming years, I'm sure you'll be very busy over the next couple of years.

MINISTER: Thank you Richard.  I'm very happy to talk again.

 

Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) and Veterans Line can be reached 24 hours a day across Australia for crisis support and free and confidential counselling. Phone 1800 011 046

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